Historian, activist and author Howard Zinn spoke to a large diverse audience last night in Strong Auditorium.
Zinn is most famous for his book, “A People’s History of the United States,” and has recently written articles for “The Progressive” magazine opposing the bombings in Afghanistan.
“We need to live in a world where we don’t pledge our allegiance to one flag, but where we pledge our allegiance to the human race,” he said.
He explained why he’s a historian. “I wanted to change the world, and history’s a good place to start,” he said. “If you don’t know any history, authority can tell you anything and you have no basis for questioning it.”
He said that the U.S. Constitution was intended to set up a government protective only of Western expansionists and privileged citizens. “The Constitution was not a perfect document ? it was a class document. It was set up for class interest,” he said.
The speech had an air of a fireside chat, with a comfortable audience laughing at Zinn’s more humorous points, and clapping enthusiastically at the serious arguments.
He also had some advice for college students. “I learned very soon that the best way to educate yourself is to cut class and go to the library.” That way, he said, one is able to come across readings that are not on the reading list. Zinn talked about his realization that there was a large omission of facts from the history books he read in school, and that these books mainly focused on America’s economic growth and rarely concentrated on the history of the working class.
Zinn’s speech also touched upon his participation in World War II, where he saw action as a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force.
Though he was in “the best of wars,” he said that “war is a quick fix, but war doesn’t solve fundamental problems. One year later, two years later, five years later, the world hasn’t changed and you go to war again.”
The audience’s biggest reaction came when Zinn said, “War can no longer be a solution to any of the problems we face in the world today.”
He said he learned to look at history from a black point of view, a woman’s point of view and a Native American’s point of view because of his diverse life experiences.
“I learned most about democracy,” he said. “Democracy was not what was taught to me in high school. Democracy came alive when the citizens got together, organized and did something.”
Zinn, who is professor emeritus of political science at Boston University, was involved in founding the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was an antiwar activist during the Vietnam War.
Zinn was reunited with Senior Information Analyst at the UR medical center Bob Good last night. Good was part of the “Camden 28,” a group of Vietnam war protestors from Camden, New Jersey that illegally dodged the draft. Good’s brother had been killed in the war years before, and their mother, Betty Good, believed that her son died for a just cause.
At the group’s trial, Zinn testified for the defendants and spoke of the govern-ment’s lies concerning Vietnam War. Mrs. Good broke out in tears at this truth revealed ? because of Zinn’s testimony, she realized her son had died for an unjust cause.
“History of social change in this country is a history of citizen action in face of government inaction,” Zinn said. He said that the government controls the media, and that the media in turn willingly lets itself be controlled by the government. Journalists, he said, are supposed to be independent and question government instead of merely falling in line like a bunch of sheep.
“If we are citizens in a democracy, we have to think for ourselves. We have to ask ourselves if the bombing of Afghanistan is right.” Zinn said that nobody wants to examine the reasons behind terrorism. “Unless we change, we’ll be stuck in the same endless cycle of war after war.
“We have to stop being a military superpower in the world. Maybe should use our immense wealth to do something about disease and hunger in the world.”
In response to a question asked by an audience member, he somewhat jokingly proclaimed himself to be a “democratic anarchistic socialist.” The audience laughed.
Audience members had diverse reactions to Zinn’s speech.
“He’s a good thinker, but people should level with him more ? they shouldn’t look up to him as much. [People like Zinn] shouldn’t be on pedestals,” said Arthur Klinkon of the Rochester School of the Arts.
“I think he wants to have his cake and eat it too. He’s a looter. He wants to have the products of capitalism while condemning capitalism at the same time,” said freshman Cedric Logan, who is a member of UR’s College Republicans.
“It’s funny that the people who speak the truth are the ones that are labeled as radicals,” said Tim Beideck, a Rochester community citizen.
Zinn is the winner of the 1991 Thomas Merton Award, the 1998 Eugene Debs Award, the 1998 Lannan Literary Award and the 1999 Upton Sinclair Award. He has been a visiting professor at the University of Paris and the University of Bologna.
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